Talk about long, strange trips: after a season set in 1990s-era L.A. courtrooms as a writer/producer on the acclaimed American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, Joe Robert Cole found himself in the secretive high-tech African nation of Wakanda.
Cole stepped into the Marvel Cinematic Universe to collaborate on the screenplay for Black Panther with the film’s director Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station), and together the two of them were determined to craft not only a compelling story centered around comic book’s first marquee-level black superhero, but also to deliver a distinctive cinematic take on the Panther’s homeland and its people, embracing the mystique and power of its comic book iterations while grounding it in authentic African culture, as Cole revealed on the red carpet at the film’s premiere.
ComicBook.com: T’Challa doesn't have one specific, all-defining storyline in the source material, but you had decades of comic books to sit through for plot elements and inspiration. Tell me about that experience for you.
Joe Robert Cole: Well we started by rooting the character of T'Challa in the canon. That's how we started the starting point and then kind of move forward from there. We read every one and got inspired by them all, they all bring something a little bit different to the table that I feel like we were able to fold into the story that we crafted. But the story is our own. It's contemporary. It is our version of an amalgamation of a lot of what fed us from the canon. And obviously we were also influenced by the introduction of Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War.
And for a Marvel movie, you weren't sort of saddled with a lot of that bigger universe stuff – setting the table for plots and characters that pay off in later films. You got to operate it in your own sandbox, for the most part. Tell me about what was freeing about that.
Yeah, Wakanda was world creation in the purest sense of the word. We had to create a world, that people, that has not only never been conquered, has never been invaded. It was a clean slate.
And so we knew that the country was going to be a big part of the story as a character within itself, and so it gave us a tremendous amount of freedom, kind of living in that space and telling the stories of Wakanda, more than in branching out and being all over the world. Wakanda being our rooting place and being able to kind of bounce out and kind of talk about threats from outside, threats from within – that gave us a lot of freedom because it was unknown territory.
Tell me about merging real-world African inspiration with the mythology from the comics to create the film’s Wakanda.
Well, I think one of the critical things that I think Ryan [Coogler] pushed and we all wanted was to root Wakanda as close into real-world Africa as possible. It's a great challenge taking on a place that has been unfairly caricatured often in the past and trying to do it justice and not only show the glory of it, but also show the warts of it, and really just give it a dimensionality that often has not existed. And so I'm really, really proud of our production design team, our costumer, Ryan obviously, and we really just try to root it authentically and tackle it from there.
Tell me a little bit about changes like when you took characters that could be overtly offensive, like the original comics conception of Man-Ape, or something that could be subtly offensive, like the original betrothal aspect of the Dora Milaje -- those decisions to make sure things weren't exploitative or stereotypical or demeaning.
Yeah, there was a lot of conversations about M'Baku, about the Dora and the rules that surround their existence and kept from making those things progressive and contemporary. I'll speak first about M'Baku: we really felt like his character had something really to offer to the tapestry of the movie. The Jabari tribe that he is the ruler of has a very interesting and unique point of view that we felt was important for the story, and in a way it also gave us an opportunity to reclaim his character by giving him his original name, M'Baku, and also reclaim what the Dora is by empowering them and stripping away some of the non-progressive elements that exist within the founders.
You had the advantage of knowing who your Black Panther was going to be before you started writing. How did that influence what you did, knowing that Chadwick Boseman was the guy who was going to be the one pulling this stuff off?
We loved his arc in Civil War. It showed him to be noble. It showed him to be relentless. It showed him to be wise. And those are all elements that we wanted to explore in our film. And just Chad in general, not only does he have the ability to bring on the nuance necessary for the character, but he also has a natural charisma and a natural nobility that makes him feel like a king. So he just carries that with him and so it was very easy. We felt very fortunate to have him as our Panther.
Black Panther is set to hit theaters on February 16th.